Two aspiring ER doctors draw inspiration from avid sports fan and guest lecturer who taught them about his degenerative disease
By the University at Buffalo
Raising money for charity is probably not a primary focus for most students at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University at Buffalo.
But for two second-year medical students, raising funds for the Muscular Dystrophy Association of Western New York has become a top priority.
A presentation during their musculoskeletal block last spring so impressed Cullan Donnelly and Ryan Elnicki that they decided to create a fundraiser to benefit the local organization.
The presentation was a video made by Nathan Apotosky, a young man from Lackawanna, who, for more than 10 years, volunteered to speak about Duchenne muscular dystrophy to classes taught by Jacobs School faculty members Daniel Sheehan, Ph.D., M.D., clinical professor in the department of pediatrics, and Nicholas Silvestri, M.D., clinical associate professor in the department of neurology.
Though not yet the age of the students he addressed, Apotosky was an expert on the degenerative disease. He had been diagnosed with it the week of his 7th birthday.
Muscular dystrophy is a group of diseases that cause progressive weakness and loss of muscle mass. Duchenne muscular dystrophy, the most common form of the disease, occurs more commonly in boys.
Signs typically appear in early childhood and may include frequent falls, muscle pain and stiffness and learning disabilities. Complications include walking difficulties, struggled breathing, curved spine, heart issues and swallowing problems.
Before he was able to speak to Donnelly and Elnicki’s class, Apotosky passed away due to complications of the disease.
But one of his last acts was to create an educational video specifically for the Class of ’22.
“Nathan was just a spectacular kid,” said Donnelly, a Buffalo native who aspires to a career in emergency medicine. “Despite his disease, he lived life to the fullest. He went to prom; he had lots of amazing friends.”
One of the most noteworthy aspects of Apotosky’s personality was that he was a “huge, huge Buffalo sports fan – especially the Bills,” Donnelly said. “One of his biggest regrets was that he never made it to a regular season Bills game.”
About two weeks after watching Apotosky’s moving video, Donnelly emailed Sheehan proposing some sort of Bills-related fundraiser in Apotosky’s honor. Maggie Apotosky, Nathan’s mother, suggested the funds be donated to MDA of WNY Summer Camp, where her son had spent a lot of time while he was growing up.
Throughout the summer, Donnelly and Elnicki – who met in anatomy lab their first year of medical school and have been friends since – brainstormed ways to remember Apotosky that would in some way relate to the Bills.
After contacting the MDA of WNY and the Bills organization, the team agreed to donate $5 from every ticket sold through a special link for the Broncos (Nov. 24), Ravens (Dec. 8) and Jets (Dec. 29) games to benefit the MDA in Nathan’s honor.
Donnelly and Elnicki initially had no expectation of what they would make. “As time went on, we wanted to reach $1,000, but we have since crushed that goal,” Donnelly said.
As of Nov. 26, 465 tickets have been sold, netting more than $2,300 – not a bad take, considering the charity drive was publicized only through Facebook and Instagram.
Donnelly and Elnicki are hoping word will continue to spread for the home games on Dec. 8 and 29.
Elnicki, who is from Sanborn, and also hopes to be an emergency medicine physician, took care of logistics and organized the social media aspect of the fundraiser.
Before kickoff for the Ravens game on Dec. 8, the pair will host a tailgating event to bolster interest in the fundraiser. Anyone who has purchased tickets through the link has been invited to gather at New Era Field for some traditional celebrating.
“We want to use it as an opportunity to honor Nathan,” Elnicki said.
Both medical students said they hope to continue the fundraiser in seasons to come.
“Nathan helped us to learn on a personal level about his disease,” Donnelly said. “One thing he always emphasized to his mom and doctors was honesty. He didn’t want them to sugarcoat his situation.”
He stressed the same thing to students in his emotional video for the Class of ’22.
“Not a single pair of eyes could leave the screen as he wished us the best with our studies, to remain open and honest with our patients, and to treat patients like him with humanity and compassion,” Donnelly said.
The Jacobs School’s Education Committee is working to incorporate the video into the first-year curriculum so that future medical students also can learn from Apotosky’s experiences.